At first, the music video for Vermont-via-Portland-via-LA band Babehoven’s “Maybe I’m Bitter” evokes that old computer game The Sims, all empty-room templates rendered with rudimentary software. But watch closely for the early signs of the simulation breaking down. A lamp on a chair. The chair on a dresser. Soon giant disembodied hands invade – think Thing from The Addams Family – and the simulation collapses completely.
Critics of ranked lists like this see it as a bug that they’re entirely subjective and somewhat arbitrary. I see it as a feature. There’s not really any difference between #12 and #13. Frankly, there’s not all that much difference between #1 and #25. But my feeling has always been, everyone gets that. No one actually thinks you can mathematically rank works of art. But the trying offers a wonderful opportunity for music nerds to look back at the best of the year, and for the sort of vigorous debate on which such nerddom rests.
This Top 40 looks nothing like the actual Top 40. None of these songs charted, and I don’t think any of them aspired to. That is no knock against them, which probably goes without saying here – anyone reading music blogs knows that much. The adjectives “great” and “popular” occasionally attach themselves to the same track, but not often enough.
So just think of this as an alternate history of 2019 singles. It has no horses, and no town roads. It doesn’t teach love, patience, or pain, and isn’t 100% that anything. It also, as the headline says, only includes artists from one rather small state. But this wildly subjective, somewhat arbitrary survey of the past 12 months should serve as a small introduction to the wealth of talent in one community on the geographic fringe. There was a lot of wonderful music being made this year, much of it far from the big cities, or the Billboard charts. Duh.
Fifteen is a pretty stupid number for a list like this. I tried to get it down to a nice round ten, but some of the cuts to get to fifteen had been so painful that the idea of losing five more almost physically hurt (I realize I may take these lists too seriously). So fifteen it is. “A baker’s dozen,” as people who don’t know what a baker’s dozen is might say.
These days, composer and guitarist Michael Chorney is probably best known for his work with Anaïs Mitchell on her recent Broadway hit Hadestown, for which he won a Tony Award earlier this year (he plays in the band every night too). But a dive into his extensive discography wouldn’t uncover many other numbers meant for the stage. Half of his albums are ambient guitar instrumentals, and even the ones with “songs” tend toward the weird and woolly.
When you hear “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” you no doubt imagine the bucolic harmonies of “Scarborough Fair.” But Jason Cooley borrows the phrase in “Hit,” and he’s certainly no Simon or Garfunkel. The punk shouter roars the line at 11, just as he roars every line, hollering his voice hoarse in the span of a pretty short song (half of which is a guitar solo).
Though this band hailed from Vermont, you’d be forgiven for guessing they came out of Austin’s famous psych-rock scene. Loud and droney, they channel the likes of that city’s Black Angels or, from just north of their own state’s border, Montreal’s Besnard Lakes. “Head Out” caps out at 3:38, but one can imagine a song like this stretching to three or four times the length live.
The song titled “I Don’t Want to Go to Heaven” comes off an album titled Bury Me Not. Sensing a theme here? A lot preemptive belligerence about their postmortem affairs, especially given that all Pariah Beat’s band members appeared to be in their 20s at the time.
On another great song of theirs, “Dead Summer,” the band Thompson Gunner incorporate a little bit of Hall & Oates. But that poppy, peppy duo couldn’t be much further from their own sound. Warren Zevon, after whom they borrowed their name, is closer, but still nowhere near gruff enough. Singer Caleb Thomas roars and growls like Lucero’s Ben Nichols, Americana-punk at his rawkiest.
What is the titular castle the characters in Lowell Thompson’s Americana gem “Castle” plan to meet at? A music video – which might be fan-made, his website doesn’t include it – takes the word literally, using old footage of a knight and princess dancing in front of a castle (albeit one only two feet taller than they are). I doubt that’s what Thompson had in mind.